The Destruction of a Perfectly Good Corvette Convertible: This Week’s Civil Forfeiture Outrages, Part 1

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A colleague suggested that CEI should start up a regular feature: Civil Forfeiture Outrage of the Week. That assignment is more challenging than one might think, because we often hear about multiple civil forfeiture outrages simultaneously. Any one of them would be a strong contender for this dubious honor.

Our first outrage this week is brought to you by the state of Kansas, which is doing its best to destroy an extraordinary danger—namely, a red-and-white 1959 Corvette convertible. Why? Not because the Corvette is dangerous, and not because its owner did anything wrong.

The reason that Kansas is trying to destroy the Corvette is apparently because, many years ago, when the 62-year-old convertible was being restored, its dashboard vehicle identification number (VIN) plate was removed and replaced with new rivets. After Richard Martinez purchased this collectible car in Indiana for $50,000, he tried to register it in Kansas. When this extremely minor alteration was discovered, the Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) confiscated the Corvette. For the last four years, the state has kept it in storage. Adding insult to injury, the damage that the convertible suffered while in storage has cut its value by half.

Kansas law requires the seizure of any car for which the VIN was “destroyed, removed, altered, or defaced.” This turns the car into contraband which “shall be destroyed.”

It’s unclear what will happen in the future. Martinez’s attorney intends to argue that the seizure and destruction of the Corvette is unconstitutional, in part because the law allows the KHP an alternative: It can assign a new VIN rather than destroy the car, as long as it is “satisfied” that the car contains no stolen parts. The state has already stipulated that nobody “has determined that there are any stolen parts in or on the vehicle.” In practice, this means that Martinez must shoulder the impossible burden of proving the absence of stolen parts in the Corvette if he wants to get it back.

The constitutional questions are interesting—and Jacob Sullum, who first reported this story, provides a nice summary of them—but I find it especially notable that the state of Kansas didn’t allow Richard Martinez to keep his car—something it could have done under the doctrine of prosecutorial discretion (or something like that). And although I shouldn’t let the car’s aesthetic perfection affect my legal analysis, the prospect of pointlessly destroying its astonishing beauty makes this seizure especially outrageous.